By Katherine Gustafson, Womens Feature Service
Ruchira Gupta was at the peak of her journalism career when she walked away from it to fight sex trafficking. Since then, in the face of what she calls “ever-present danger” from the vested interests she fights, she and her organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, have helped thousands of women pull themselves out of prostitution. Her courageous work has garnered international attention; she has spoken before the U.N. General Assembly, testified to the U.S. Congress, been interviewed by Christian Amanpour and was recently awarded the 2009 Clinton Global Citizen Award.
It all began on a reporting assignment in the hills of Nepal, where she realised something was ominously wrong. “Where are all the girls?” she asked the men in the villages she passed through. The men giggled and looked away, vague about the whereabouts of their daughters and sisters. Gupta persevered and got a reluctant reply: “They’ve gone to work in Mumbai.”
What work, Gupta wondered, could take so many young women so far from home to do something that made their male relations blush? In Mumbai, she discovered a truth that changed her life forever: The missing girls and women had been sold into the city’s brothels.
“I actually saw that there was a whole system of trafficking. From the local village recruiter or procurer to the middle-man to the agent to the transporter to the corrupt border guard to the pimp, the brothel manager, the brothel owner, the money-lender to the landlord, organised criminal networks… trafficking was the process, and prostitution was its outcome.”
Gupta knew a good story when she saw one and immediately signed on to make a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Creating the film ‘Selling of Innocents’ took 18 months of hanging around the city’s brothels, speaking to women, fending off knife-wielding pimps, and having her heart crushed by what she saw. Slowly, she also realised this was one story she would not be able to walk away from.
“I was really, really outraged,” she says. “I had never seen this kind of exploitation of one human being by another… That was a life-changing experience for me. But it also made me realise that journalists have limitations, and I wanted to do more. I really wanted to change the world, which is why I had started out as a journalist.”
By that point in her career, Gupta was what one would call a “hard-nosed” reporter, having witnessed shocking human cruelty, escaped a murderous mob, and ridden blindfolded on a motorcycle into the jungle to meet a militant separatist group. Reporting for ‘The Telegraph’, ‘The Sunday Observer’, ‘Business India’, and the BBC, she covered stories of low-caste women being raped for refusing to work for low pay, girls committing suicide to avoid burdening their father with unattainable dowries, and a community that pressured a widow to throw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre.
She was an eyewitness to the famous Babri Mosque incident in Ayodhya, where a mob of Hindu fundamentalists tore down a mosque they believed stood on the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. When Gupta entered the mosque with her head draped with a wet handkerchief to beat the heat, members of the crowd mistook it for a headscarf and shouted “Muslim!” as they choked her. She only left alive that day because a man she had interviewed recognised her and intervened.
Gupta spoke publicly about the terrible incident and was surprised that a backlash against her frankness formed just as quickly and forcefully as her anger over what had happened. “The moment I spoke up, a lot of people said ‘oh girls from good families don’t talk about what happened to them,'” she recalls. “They tried to also say I was a liar and I was doing it for publicity.” If you speak up, she feels, people try to “marginalise you, invisibilise you, and trivialise you. But I refused to stop.”
And to this day she has not stopped. More than 20 years after winning an Emmy Award for the documentary that sent her down this path, she continues to fight tirelessly against sex trafficking and help those it ensnares. Apne Aap now works in four states in India – Delhi, West Bengal, Bihar, and Maharashtra – where it has offered its programme of self-empowerment, group support, and skills training to over 10,000 women and girls.
Meanwhile, Gupta has become a global leader on issues of human trafficking. She and a coalition of other activists were instrumental in helping the UN craft its ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women And Children’. They made sure that the protocol’s definition of trafficking took the vulnerability of women into account and that its recommendations included targeting demand.
Getting to this point has not been easy. When Gupta started out in this work, she faced “a very deep sense of loneliness.” But, she said, “I had this very deep conviction that you can make the road by walking. Even if nobody comes with you, you can walk it alone.”
That path led last month to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, where she walked onto the stage in front of an audience of the world’s notables to receive the Clinton Global Citizen Award, which honours visionary leadership in addressing global challenges.
She told a rapt audience that she was receiving the award “on behalf of people who want a world in which it is unacceptable to buy or sell another human being and to imagine an economy in which one is not forced to sell oneself.” She hopes that winning the award will amplify her message and attract more resources to help the most vulnerable women and girls.
Gupta ended her speech with a story about 15-year-old Naina, formerly in prostitution and now studying to be a videographer, who is taking action against trafficking by helping other women establish self-help groups. “If Naina can stand up to traffickers,” said Gupta, “then we as a world must also stand up to traffickers and take this on.”